40 at 40: Sook-Yin Lee has flown her freak flag for decades

The former MuchMusic VJ reflects on her whole career through two NOW covers from 1990 and 2006 and talks about her new album, jooj two


Sook-Yin Lee has been a creative presence in Canada for decades. If you’re of a certain generation, she might be your paragon of cool – something that continues to this day with her new album, jooj two, with her late ex-partner Adam Litovitz. 

As a MuchMusic VJ in the mid-to-late 90s and the best-known host of the “alternative” music video show The Wedge, she was a champion of music rarely seen on TV. She kept up that spirit even when she moved to the more staid state broadcaster, CBC Radio, to host Definitely Not The Opera.

But when she was on the cover of NOW for the first time, it was six years before she ever became a broadcaster or even moved to Toronto. It wasn’t even her name on the cover, but her band Bob’s Your Uncle – though hers was the only face on the front page. 

“Toronto was a real working Hogtown at the time,” says Lee, looking back. “There were bands like Fifth Column that were up to some really great stuff, but by and large, it was a pretty conservative, black leather, hard rock dude scene. And so when we came here [from Vancouver], dressed as martians with eyeballs painted on my head, people were like, ‘Whoa, who is that?’”

Bob’s Your Uncle on CBC Pilot One from Sook-Yin Lee on Vimeo.

Then just 24, Lee was already something of an artistic veteran. She had a difficult childhood growing up with parents who had escaped war in Hong Kong and China and used art as a way to express her feelings. She ran away from home when she was 15 and found herself living with a DIY political community of artists, poets and dancers that they called The Ranch. 

Somewhere along the way, Moses Znaimer, then head of MuchMusic and Citytv,  heard about Lee’s work as a musician and filmmaker. Without ever having met her, he sent a camera operator to her house and asked her to do whatever she wanted. 

“I had been squatting on one of the islands with some girlfriends that summer and we were running around wearing wigs and bikinis and shooting off big Winchester rifles,” says Lee. “I had all of these characters in my head and I had a big squirt gun collection. And the camera operator arrived at my house and I just pretty much went through these different skits and talked about music. Then, a couple of days later, Moses offered me the job.”

That was his casting style at the time, she says. He wouldn’t look for people who were ready for TV, but just hired interesting and diverse people (“in the days before diversity checkboxes,” she adds), put them on camera with hours of time to fill and let them sink or swim. 

Many of the Much VJs we remember so nostalgically now started out unpolished or green and figured it out while live on television. Lee might have been more qualified for that type of environment than anyone else. Her favourite thing was to go out onto Queen Street and talk to whoever she found there, often finding them more interesting than the celebrities she was paid to interview. 

“I value that time because I was able to demystify celebrity,” she says. “When you interview so many celebrities, after a while, the shine comes off and they’re really revealed as the humans they are.”

The 1990 NOW cover story says she approached her music with “a doodler’s imagination,” and you can feel that autodidactic, DIY spirit coursing through everything she’s done. She’s always looking to connect on a human level, which she says is like soul music – no matter the medium. 

That created a bit of a culture shock when she left Much and started at the CBC.

“I went from being the smart VJ to the dumb broadcaster,” she says. There, the rule was “the journalist is the expert,” and things were much more polished. But it’s also where she learned to write for herself and shape and discover her own voice. 

Lee was on the cover of NOW again in 2006 as an actor in John Cameron Mitchell’s movie Shortbus. The film was controversial for showing unsimulated sex, and her performance almost got her fired from the mother corp before it was even released. Big name artists like Michael Stipe, Moby, Francis Ford Coppola, Yoko Ono, Julianne Moore, David Cronenberg and more came to her defense and she kept her job.

Lee did a play at Canadian Stage a couple of years ago called Unsafe about art and censorship in Canada.

“The conversation around censorship looks different now than it did [in the 80s and 90s]. Now it’s less about exclusion and more about who gets the chance to speak,” she says. “There’s been a demand for diversity. And I think about the early days at Citytv. They wanted to reflect the city and all its vibrancy. It was very diverse, but it wasn’t about ‘diversity.’ It was a sensible and successful business model that people loved. It was effective, accessible. 

“Now… there’s a lot of conversations around transformations of institutions and there’s a lot of money allocated for ‘marginalized communities,’ but it lies with the gatekeepers, the high echelon people. It’s hard to separate a human from their power. Until the power structure really changes, it’s going to be a lot of lip service. ”

Lee looks instead to the “rock and roll style” of entrepreneurship – the self-starting spirit of making something on a shoestring budget, putting it out there and charging five bucks at the door. And she says she finds that the most in music. 

She’s about to put out a new album this Friday (April 9) on Mint Records, jooj two, her second musical collaboration with the late Adam Litovitz. The two were artistic and romantic partners until a few years ago when they broke up, but continued collaborating. Litovitz died by suicide in 2019. She’s spoken out about benzodiazepines, which he was prescribed with little oversight from a doctor he just met, and says this needs to be a bigger conversation, especially as anxiety has become its own epidemic.

“Losing Adam was the most difficult, is the most difficult and continues to be the most difficult thing that I’ve experienced in life,” Lee says. “It’s like having a part of me that’s missing.”

She’s continued their work together posthumously, including a soon-to-be-published book by Litovitz. Her movie with Dylan Gamble, Death And Sickness, is a rumination on the loss she felt over Litovitz and the loss the world is dealing with during COVID, but jooj two is more of a direct collaboration, she says, a more pop version of their stream-of-consciousness style. 

Litovitz would create a sound fragment in the studio, then Lee would create melody and give it some structure. Towards the end of his life, he became obsessed with overhearing and would often transcribe (or semi-intentionally mis-transcribe) bits of conversation or even onomatopoeia of stuff he heard around Toronto. Lee took that, sharpened it and worked on interesting enunciations. Then she’d pass it back to him, and he would continue to polish.

“And so, in a strange way I feel like the whole album bubbled up from the subconscious,” Lee says. “You can feel his spirit in the music.”

Below, find the 1990 cover story on Bob’s Your Uncle, republished from NOW’s December 13, 1990 issue

By KIM HUGHES 

With a “doodler’s imagination” as their inspiration and music their medium, Vancouver-based quintet Bob’s Your Uncle are pushing the limits of pop. 

More than just a club act. Bob’s Your Uncle is a free-spirited travelling sideshow. Six times in as many years, the group have packed up their bus with whistles, bells, a load of oddball instruments and a stash of handpainted sets to hit the trans-Canada highway. determined to be seen and heard. And while they’ve most consistently been seen as “art rockers,” their music is hard-hitting and original enough to avoid the frivolous connotations of the term. 

At the centre of Bob’s creative swirl is singer, lyricist, visual artist and filmmaker Sook-Yin Lee. When she bounces out on stage. Lee becomes the immediate focal point and catalyst of the show. 

Careening back and forth in a whirlwind of arm-waving frenzy, and playing a hunk of pipe that might have been swiped from a construction site, Lee is immediately intriguing and beguiling. Of her unique approach to music and performance. she jokes, “I think our visual aspects and sets are the output of a chronic doodler’s imagination. 

Bob’s handpainted sets and self-drawn and -designed comic books do have a quirky, doodley quality. And their music, like a notepad left by the phone, is a vivid collage of squiggles. swirls, fragmented thoughts and funny faces. 

If there’s a constant in this chaos of sight and sound, it’s the band’s unfaltering commitment to being original – and to being themselves. To their fans, Bob’s Your Uncle are a bright, imaginative breath of fresh air. Their critics call them gimmicky and self-indulgent. But no one comes away from a Bob’s show  without a strong opinion. 

Surreal landscapes 

And it’s hard to argue with success. Bob’s Diamond show tonight (December 11) marks their third trip to T.O. in a year – and they are still relatively new to the scene here. What started with a small “artsy” West Coast following has snowballed into a country-wide audience, a major distribution deal and a secure position at the fore-front of the alternative, independent scene. 

Their latest release. Tale Of 2 Legs, their first real “label” LP on California independent label Doc-tor Dream (distributed here by Intrepid Records through Capitol), typically embraces contradictions. 

Surreal lyrical landscapes float in an atmosphere created by such unlikely musical tools as coathangers, lengths of industrial pipe and toy instruments, combined with traditional guitars, drums and harmonica. 

Lee’s clear, inflected voice is reminiscent of Natalie Merchant’s, as she marches through the silly and sublime without missing a beat, in spite of the unconventional phrasings and sudden musical turns. 

“There are a lot of rules that haven’t been planted in my head because I haven’t been taught music theory,” she says on the phone from her Vancouver home. “It always struck me as odd that rock bands were always composed of bass, drums and guitars. 

“I found out later that people utilize those because of the different timbres that cover the low range, middle range and high range. I think those ranges can be explored through other instruments.” 

Lee is articulate apd friendly as she brightly discusses her band’s achievements, then switches over to Escapades Of One Particular Mr. Noodle, a loosely autobiographical short film sponsored by the National Film Board and written, directed. scored, acted and produced by Lee. Mr. Noodle was part of a collection of women filmmakers’ work that made up a feature-length movie titled Five Feminist Minutes that showed at last fall’s Festival of Festivals. Filmmaking. although one of Lee’s strongest suits, remains just one more avenue for her unique creative urge. 

“Ever since I was a kid,” she says. “I would put on these huge shows for the neighbourhood kids – musicals and stuff. I remember one time asking all the kids to close their eyes because I wanted to fake these Hawaiian guitars. 

“I figured I could convince them I was really playing a Hawaiian guitar when in actual fact while their eyes were closed I was playing my nose (which she does over the phone believably enough). The kids really thought I was playing Hawaiian guitars.” 

Since coming together as Bob’s Your Uncle, Lee, guitarist James Junger, harmonica player Peter Lizotte, bassist Bernie Radelfinger and drummer John Rule have continued to make up their own musical rules. 

On 2 Legs, jazz, pop, rock, swaying tribal rhythms and even new age snuggle up together, cradling Lee’s voice and nippy lyrics. For every guitar surge that dovetails into a fiery harmonica passage, a weird, unknowable instrument pops up in the mix. “We now have a pipe shaped like a potato,” Lee says. “It’s made out of ceramic and it’s got a really beautiful sound.” 

And in spite of their high-profile, visual attack. Lee has consistently downplayed her own video-friendly beauty, preferring a casual, tomboyish look. With their latest video, Walk On Land, a variety of underwater shots even find Lee wearing trousers instead of a swimsuit. 

“It would have been incredibly tacky if I were to don a bikini and do water shots,” she says laughing. “I don’t really imagine myself as any sort of goddess. Within the band and within myself, I don’t feel. ‘I’ve got it. I’ll flaunt it.’ I just go out there and perform. 

“But unfortunately,” she says with a touch of regret, “video seems to be superceding the stage. Undeniably it’s a powerful tool.” 

While Bob’s Your Uncle shows are panoramic, powerful and clearly cross different media, Lee doesn’t find them particularly “arty.” 

“People make their own judgments,” she says. “Anyway, if they’re so scared by the word ‘art,’ well…. This is all theoretical, and there are lots of people with different ideas about the band out there. 

“The music is an accumulation of a lot of different modes of my expression. 

“And the painted backdrops are very much myself that I’m putting out there in different forms. I am not a high-brow person throughout the shows. There are lots of elements of comedy and drama. I’m a Gemini and a fire horse, so I guess I have a tendency to be a bit schizophrenic.” 

If that’s the case, it has certainly given her a healthy sense of humour. Then again. she’d have to have one to travel across the country six times with four guys in a 69 Ford Bluebird bus, with few amenities and often without heat.

Shopping mall 

“I remember once,” she recalls, “we were playing in New York in Jamestown and we pulled up to the destination and found it was a large shopping mall and the stage was surrounded by a white picket fence. And I thought. ‘Oh no. This is going to be horrible.’ But it actually turned out really nice, and the audience was really sensitive, and we were,’ she pauses, “not mauled in the mall.” 

When Bob’s Your Uncle was formed in 84 by neighbours Lee and Lizotte, there was little indication that they’d make it even this far. 

At 18, Lee was already familiar with the ups and down of performing, having been unceremoniously booted from a hardcore punk group at age 15. Though she always enjoyed singing and dancing, and was self-taught at both, her efforts didn’t really take shape until she hooked up with the other members of Bob’s Your Uncle. 

The combo’s intense performances, coupled with their slavish commitment to visual art, drew considerable local attention on the West Coast. And while constant touring secured a strong alternative foothold throughout Canada, it was a trip to the New Music Seminar in NYC in 1989 that helped Bob’s become pop contenders. 

While performing, the group caught the eye of the Doctor Dream representatives, who had an act performing at the seminar. The two parties talked and discussed a deal. Before long, Bob’s five members were in the studio cutting Tale Of 2 Legs with a promise of label support.

Restrained vocals 

“The studio was pretty far away from my home,” Lee says. “I had to take the bus, because I don’t drive a car and if I’d ridden my bike I would have been exhausted. I felt my vocals were a little restrained. It would have been nice to have had a vocal coach there, a second pair of ears.

“But the contracts that were shown to us by Doctor Dream were incredibly fair,” Lee says. “We haven’t had to sell our souls away or promise years and years into the future.” 

Now, with Intrepid and Capitol taking care of promotion and distribution here, Europe and America are emerging as prospective new ground for the group. “Someone told me,” Lee says, “that they saw our record in Stockholm, Sweden. We can just keep travelling and movinb and showing our work to different people. 

“We’re doing things in a very realistic way. It hasn’t been a magic carpet ride or anything. But I think in the end if you build something so solidly from the ground up, it’s less likely to topple.

“And I don’t feel trepidation in reaching a certain commercial realm. I think it’s the method by which we reach that commercial status that’s most Important. I don’t suddenly want to have to put on a miniskirt and stilettos. 

“I want to feel proud. And I do feel proud of this band, our work ethic and our personal relationships with each other. And the element that nobody handed as anything. It’s a lot of hard work, but I’m having a good time doing it.”  

Check back every Monday for a new 40 at 40 cover story marking NOW’s 40th anniversary year.

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